We need trains on the New Champlain Bridge

The Liberals are considering buses over light-rail trains to connect South Shore commuters to the island, and that would be a huge mistake.


Vancouver’s Skytrain

“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.”

–Dwight D. Eisenhower

Quebec transportation minister Robert Poëti should pay attention to Eisenhower’s warning. The Liberal government is still dallying with the idea of opting for buses rather than a light-rail train system on the Champlain Bridge replacement, a decision that could affect the next 100 years of public transit in Greater Montreal.

The construction of a new bridge is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape the way we treat commuter transportation from the South Shore — the wrong decision now would be the political equivalent of lying down on the tracks.

In the minds of most elected officials on both the Island and the South Shore, opting for buses is short-sighted.

It’s hard to disagree.

Trains can transport more people more efficiently at a lower cost-per-passenger than buses. And they can do so without putting hundreds of large vehicles on city roads every day. You don’t have to look farther than Vancouver (okay, that’s pretty far, but I mean this metaphorically) to see the advantages of light rail. The so-called Sky Train, which was  opened to serve Expo 86, has been expanded several times since.

Sound familiar? Maybe that’s because the Montreal metro system was built to service our own Expo in 1967. Can you think of anyone who, 45 years later, thinks building the metro or extending it was a dumb idea?

Let’s compare that to what people think of the the Champlain Bridge (1962), Bonaventure Autoroute (1967), Ville-Marie Expressway (1972) and Mirabel Airport (1967).

These were poorly planned, poorly built projects that often ploughed right over historic (and impoverished) neighbourhoods. Now we’re either redoing, rebuilding, closing or demolishing structures that were supposed to usher us well past the the new millennium.

Meanwhile, despite its recent spate of breakdowns, metro ridership continues to increase and is ranked third in North America, behind New York and Mexico City with 1,241,000 unlinked passenger trips per weekday.


Rail transportation is the future, and it has been for 200 years.

Until someone invents Star Trek-ish transporters or Jetsons-like personal spacecraft, rail will continue to be the best way to inexpensively move large numbers of people quickly and safely. (Yes, rail accidents happen, but compare those fatalities to the number of people killed in road accidents every year.)

If Quebec does not insist on the construction of a light-rail system as part of the plans for the New Champlain (can someone please name this sucker soon, maybe the Pont PK?) there is little chance that that one will be added later. Or on the off-chance it is retrofitted, it will cost many times more than if it had been done at the outset.

So why would Quebec even be toying with the idea of buses over trains? Some are suggesting trains will encourage urban sprawl, an exodus to off-island burbs.

That is a ridiculous argument. If we want to discourage urban sprawl by making commuting less attractive, less efficient, then why have public transit at all? Let’s make everyone drive their cars over the bridge or, better yet, don’t build a new bridge at all.

Projet Montréal thinks the province is trying to skew the numbers to suggest that a bus system will be less expensive. But even if creating the infrastructure — rail versus reserved bus lanes — is more expensive, annual operating costs are much lower because you don’t need hundreds of drivers for a train.

More buses will also increase the already saturated traffic congestion in the city, not to mention pound the poop out of city roads while making life hell for anyone living near the bus routes.

Those considerations, among others, were what convinced Montreal city council yesterday to unanimously adopt Projet Montréal’s motion calling on the province to support the light-rail choice.

But if the bus option remains more attractive to Poëti, it’s likely because the bill for capital costs of building the infrastructure will go to the province while the tab for operating costs will be picked up by the city.

Whether the cost comes from provincial taxes or property taxes, it’s our pockets being picked either way. So, ultimately, it’s you and I who will be railroaded if short-term political expediency once more prevents Quebec from looking past the next election signs to see what’s waiting further down the tracks. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every Wednesday. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.